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Making the rounds

Wow. Four years away from LiveJournal.

Part of that was moving content I wanted to better preserve from Denial of Service probles, moving things over to my own website. And then another part was spending more time on Facebook - where I tend to stay in contact with a lot more of my wide-spread friends.

But Facebook isn't really conducive to longer discussions. And I've been starting to carve that sort of community again. So I am likely to be reviving this blog. There's more interaction of a substansive sort.

Also there were two other factors: first, I just completed an overhaul of my website, moving content off my "hand crafted" (and they looked it) HTM pages and onto WordPress platforms - it's much tidier and a heck of a lot easier to update now; and second, I just got a brand new laptop and am doing some websurfing giving it a bit of a "road test".

I'm likely to be posting links to my website here from time to time, showing off finished products, as it were. But I will also be tossing out things about ongoing work, asking for reactions and feedback.

For instance: I'm planning to post a 4,800 word short story on the site, set in my fantasy world Arveniem. It does not pertain to the novel that (yes still) I'm working on. I intend to break it into 4 or 5 parts and post them separately. But my question is, what sort of a delay sounds good? Once a week seems too long a gap for this story (especially since I don't yet know where the breaks / cliffhangers will fall). But publishing it in consecutive days seems a bit fast. Every 2 days? Every 3 days?

I have to think about it. After all, the object is to be building the audience.

Personal Archeology

I recently came to the decision to give up the storage unit I've been renting, basically because I can't afford it at present. After finally getting current on my payments to the storage company, I began the process of moving everything back to my apartment. The contents of the unit were mostly the overflow of my book collection -- volumes I wanted to keep but had no space for in the apartment. There were also boxes of miscellaneous papers, most of my comic book collection, the inventory of my original Christmas cards, and other sundries (such as my electronic typewriter -- yes, I still have that!).

I can't keep it all, of course. Even with about half the boxes now moved to the apartment, I'm beginning to get crowded. When everything is out, I fear that it will feel like I'm living in a storage unit. So I've begun the process of digging through everything and throwing out as much as I can. I then need to re-evaluate what remains, for the keep or sell/give-away option.

Going through the papers has taken on the feel of an archeological dig.

It's been interesting. One box I expected was the box that has all my old volumes of my journal. I'm a haphazard journaller at best, but still it was interesting to open a volume at random and read through what I was thinking and feeling years ago. And also a little odd, because I have moved on from that point, and the world has moved on.

I've also found notebooks for stories that I'd "forgotten" about. Minor things I haven't thought of in years. It amuses me to find some very early short stories. As I've looked through them, I'm thinking of typing them up and posting them on my website, just for kicks.

All in all, the review of my belongings -- and myself -- that has come about because of giving up the storage unit has been interesting. It would have been necessary at some point in the future, but the timing of it happening now, when I feel many aspects of my life going through a new transition, well, it seems very appropriate.

I do keep wondering what else I will turn up.

What About Including Elves?

I've been doing some thinking lately about why so many fantasy writers have the impulse to include "elves" (by that or any other name) in their fantasy worlds. I'd looked at the issue of immortality before, but this was a broader impulse.

I've posted the main discussion over on my Arveniem blog on my website.

Why do we have this impulse to include elvish type beings in our fantasy worlds, I wonder? I'd be interested in reactions and feedback on the idea.

I have been vaguely thinking off and on during the last month that I needed to get back to my practice of writing about my friends. I put it off because I wanted to finish compiling a PDF of all the original entries. But even that project got shunted down the priotiry list. And so I didn't get anything new written.

This last week, it all came back to me, as I waited, along with many friends, through the sudden last illness of someone dear to us. Why had I not gotten back to this before, I wondered. And why does it take another death to motivate me? All the things I should have said to Jack when he was alive are now said when he is gone.

Jack Gilbert is one of the friends I made through Premise, and he was one of the original members of that fellowship, so that means I've known him over twenty years. How time slides by us!

He had one of those quiet, calm demeanors that convey stability and patience and wisdom. And he had all those qualities in abundance. What you did not expect when you first met him was the impish sense of humor that lurked underneath that presentation of reliability.

Unless you met him at a Christmas part, your first sign of that playfulness would be when you parted from him in a parking lot, at the side of his modest, somewhat older car. Jack had personalized license plates, and they read "YODA 1". That always made me smile when I saw it. At the early (to me) Premise Christmas parties, Jack would arrive with a bow tie adorned with battery powered lights on it, often an elf hat (which somehow he managed to wear with dignity) and an animal puppet that peeked at other guests from the crook of his arm. For all his quiet reserve, Jack enjoyed being around people and engaging with them.

I eventually became part of a regular screenwriters group that grew out of the Premise fellowship. The Writers Forum had been going a few years before I joined it, and I was impressed by its durability. Jack helped make it so: we usually met at his apartment and we relied on his gentle leadership to moderate our discussions. On those occasions when we met without him, when we sat down for the day's business, our opening question frequently was "Who will be Jack today?"

He was a committed greeter of domestic animals. He greeted cats and dogs as if he were a born member of their community and not a human intruder. And they responded to him as such.

Jack Gilbert

He was a mentor to many, and a teacher. He was insightful about storytelling. My biggest regret is that I did not nudge him more about his own writing. He felt that he was not adequate, and so did not often put his own work before others. The reality is that although he was encouraging to other writers of all levels of skill, he was a perfectionist about his own work. A harsh one at that, and needlessly, I felt. He was a good storyteller and I should not have let him off the hook.

He loved movies and fly fishing.

He was a shining light of gentleness, courtesy and godliness. A deeply committed follower of Christ, who had no need to proclaim it on the corner, because it infused his every action. He gave his love freely and it was returned to him magnified many times. He was a dear man -- valued, precious and rare.

Adventures in Scanning Pictures

So I've been scanning a lot of my old artwork for Mythlore onto my computer. Some of these pictures go way back, done before I even moved out to Los Angeles. (Yeah, really making myself feel old here - sigh.) It's interesting to look at them now, some of them I go "Ummm, nope, not quite there."

Some of them I would do differently now. In fact, that's been a somewhat surprising consequence of spending so much time with these old pieces -- the idea of redoing them. Not just tweaking elements of the picture, but taking the moment illustrated, and totally redoing the composition. There is one from The Silmarillion, where Idril and Earendil are escaping while Tuor fights Maeglin. This one I would completely change the angle we view the action. I did not expect to have the impulse to do new versions to come out of this process.

For me initially, it was simply a matter of wanting to record all the work I'd done. Most of the originals were sold or given away long ago, or (for the smaller incidental pieces) lost. Many of them had certainly slipped out of the active part of my memory. Seeing the finished pieces, though, often brought back memories of the choices I was making in doing the work.

Anyway, all that is just sentimental back-patting. What I wanted to post was the scanned version of a two-page spread I did of the Council of Elrond from The Lord of the Rings. I had to scan it in segments and then "stitch" the parts together in Photoshop. So what you're seeing here is that composite. That's why there's a slight gap in the middle. For some reason, when the scanner did the middle section, it captured the image differently, cutting off the bottom border. It is fixed easily enough in Photoshop, of course, but I decided to post this without doing anything more than whiting out the staples.

Council of Elrond

For the most part, I'm pleased with the composition of this piece. There are a few things I find flawed -- I think I made the hobbits a shade too tiny; the lower portion of Glorfindel's body is too short (he's the blond standing behind Aragorn); Aragorn's extended arm is just a little bit too long. The elf sitting in the chair facing Elrond is Legolas, and at the time I did this there was ongoing debate about the color of his hair. Yes, he was the son of Thanduril the Golden-haired, but he was also a Sindarin elf on his mother's side, and so I opted to give him the darker hair of the Sindarin. When I get around to coloring this, I'll probably change that to the prevailing "ruling" now (that Legolas is blond). I put Arwen way in the background. I know she was not present at the Council, but because she is so crucial to Aragon's choices and motivation, I wanted to get that in somehow.

Generally speaking, it's not an easy moment to try and illustrate (unless you do have a movie camera to move around the space.

Reflecting on old artwork

Last night I went to the January meeting of the Comic Arts Professional Society (CAPS), where we had an evening of sketching from a live model. It had been years and years since I'd done that, so I was a bit excited and nervous about the process. But I did it. And then today, because I was going to be posting pictures from the evening on my website blog, I decided to scan the sketches as well. Once the scanner was set up, I was suddenly going "Well, why not scan the sketches for Zoe Alone as well? And what about these other sketches in here?"

Well, one page of those "other sketches" happened to be some preliminaries for one of the last pieces I did for Mythlore. The picture that resulted was one I'd always felt rather ambivalent about.

Ungoliant and the trees

I was getting burned out about the time I did this. I'd been doing illustrations for Mythlore for about a decade, many of them "on demand" illustrations for specific articles, or for "We need art" reasons. My brain had reached a saturation point, which pushed me into making more stylized choices. That's why this picture of Ungoliant drinking the sap of the Two Trees (from The Silmarillion) looks this way. Intellectually, I know it "works," but I always felt a bit removed from it emotionally.

It amused me to find the preliminary sketches in the sketchbook. Well, "find" is not quite the word. Notice them, is more like it. They are very, very sketchy.

Ungoliant sketches

Trying to convey the loss of light when you're working in black and white isn't easy. But generally I think the composition came out well enough.

Once I'd scanned the picture, though (that is, both the sketch and the final drawing, which was scanned from the journal), I started thinking about what it might look like with some color. Not a lot of color, mind you, because the whole point is that Ungoliant is drinking up not just the light but the colors of the world. And I began to get much more interested in the picture.

I sat down with Photoshop to do some coloring (getting more practiced with it every day). And as I started adding just hints of color, I really started getting excited with this picture. Maybe that's what it's been needing all this time. Even as I worked on it, the idea of Ungoliant stealing not just the light of the Two Trees, but also the color really touched me.

Because of that, I decided to leave parts of this uncolored, so the black and white environment (well, mostly shades of grey) would contrast the remaining spots of color. And even that bit of color is being darkened, drained away. I like the end result.

It's a sort of redemption of the piece for me. Suddenly, I've become fond of it. I never thought that would happen.

And here's the finished color version --

Drinking Light

Dealing With Rejection

Someone in one of my Facebook groups posted a link to this blog, and any writer, aspiring or otherwise, ought to read it, just for the basics — A really good blog post about rejection.

Learning to deal with rejection is a very important part of getting ahead as a professional writer. As Chuck says in his post, not all rejections are equal.

How you learn to deal with criticism and rejection is very important. Well before I got serioius as a writer, I’d learned to handle criticism.

I started taking violin when I was in fifth grade. For the next five years, I had private lessons, and once I was in seventh grade, I took part in orchestra. When you play an instrument, there are plenty of times when you are going to get things wrong. Especially on an instrument like the violin, where the correct note is entirely dependant on the placement of your fingers. There are no frets to guide you as there are on guitars. There are no exact keys, like a piano or a valved brass instrument. Either you got it right or you didn’t. When you learn to play the violin, you are in for many sessions that seem to be almost constant correction – finger placement, holding the bow, bow pressure.

But in addition to the music lessons, I also took art classes in school. And although I have talent, there were times when I just didn’t “get” the assignment. Sometimes it was because the instructor did not explain the nature of the medium we were working in. For instance, in eighth grade, one unit in art class was to work in pottery clay. We were to design our sculpture and then make it in clay, shaping and carving, hollow it out and then it would be fired. We had to pound and wedge the clay to make sure all air bubbles were out if it, since it was a rather fine-grained clay. My initial design for this project was a lively bouncy dog, rather like a Spaniel. But the teacher had me redesign this to something that looks like a stylized terrier. Much much later, I realized that because of the fineness of the clay, my original design would have been doomed to breakage. There was a reason for the rejection of my initial design – but the teacher didn’t explain it very well at the time.

Fast forward a couple of years to eleventh grade art class. Once again, we were doing a unit involving sculpting in clay. Keeping in mind what I’d learned the previous time, my design this time was of a young woman sitting rather placidly, nothing particularly dramatic. One of my classmates did a design of three boys rough and tumbling in play that was really dramatic. What I did not realize was that clay we were using in this second class was different in nature, more sturdy and able to sustain a broader presentation (it was also a bit more roughly grained). I got a good enough grade on my sculpture (ie, it was accepted). But afterward, I wished I had had a better understanding of the nature of the medium. If I’d understood that, I might have retried my original design in a medium better able to sustain it. So, sometimes “acceptance” isn’t exactly helpful either.

But the time I was in college, I was focused on writing. During my undergraduate days, even though I was still learning much about the craft of writing, I was also sending out short stories to fantasy and science fiction magazines. Oh, I didn’t sell anything in this period, but I learned to handle rejections. I learned that it was not personal, that there could be many reasons why my submission was turned away. One of the things that was a big help in that lesson was the fact that one of the magazines I submitted to had a check list on their rejection form letter. It was a quick way for the editor to let the writer know things like “I can’t read this, get a better printer” (or typewriter ribbon, as it was back in the dark ages), “I like the story, but the prose needs a lot of work”, or simply “This doesn’t fit our needs at this time.” The interesting thing was that as I went along, some of my rejection letters from that magazine began to get a short note scribbled on them as well. Basically, those few notes said I showed a lot of promise, but the craft still needed work.

That encouragement meant a lot to me then, and it helped me understand things from the editor’s side.

When I finished (so I thought) writing The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth, I submitted the manuscript to a publisher that had put out a book from a friend of mine. The initial editor had really liked the whole book after reading it and had passed it up to the senior editor. But the senior editor had only read through the first section (on the Hero’s Journey), and found it confusing and overly complicated. He also was uncertain about the title, feeling that in this day and age of computers, would people really get the reference to being a “scribbler.” That second critique I could easily reject, because in the four years of working on the book, when talking with other writers, they had gotten it immediately and smiled at it (which is the exact reaction I wanted). But his first criticism was a blow. Because he was right.

I sat down and reorganized the first section, removing those things which had created the confusion. Cutting and pasting whole passages into new places in the order took a lot of work. But in the end, it was much, much better for the changes.

So then I went back to trying to find a publisher. The second publisher it went to liked it, but it really didn’t fit their catalogue. They wished me well. The third publisher, one well known for books on writing, was a bit interested. I had a couple of phone conversations with that senior editor. But she wanted to break the manuscript into three volumes, and she wanted a massive rewrite to bring it into conformity with their house style (which was rather more A-B-C’s simplicity than what I had written). She didn’t out-and-out reject it. But what she was suggesting I rework my book into being was not what I wanted my work to be. So I let that submission drop — in that case the rejection came from my end of the deal.

The fourth publisher really liked my manuscript. I had a meeting with the editor who read it and the senior editor. And what we talked about was marketing (I’d already started my platform building, which pleased them), and whether or not to publish it as one volume or three. My argument for a single volume was that it was designed to be just one reference book for writers. But I could understand their concerns about trying to market such a large volume from an unknown writer. I was willing to consider breaking it into three units, if they wanted to make a go of it with the text pretty much as it was, which they did. It was exciting! A possible acceptance!

They submitted their slate of intended publications, including my book, to their parent company. Unfortunately, the parent company was restructuring, and so nixed their entire slate.

That was three years of trying to get the book published. It was at that point that I decided to go with print-on-demand, in order to get the thing out. It was always a book intended for use, not to necessarily make me “fame and fortune” (although that would be nice).

I’ve recounted this history as a way of showing that there could be various reasons for rejection. And they’re not all bad ones.

The Fine Art of Encouragement

I've been thinking a lot lately about the Fine Art of Encouragement. I'm sure everyone "knows" that encouragement is important in the life of any creative person, no matter the craft they practice. And we all do certainly remember to say things like "I really loved your last book!" or "That autumn night painting of yours is so beautiful!" or "I'm so happy your movie is doing well!"

And any creator does love to hear those statements. It is a joy to know others find value in your work.

But look at those statements again. They are all about the end object of the work, the thing produced.

What have you (or I, for that matter) said in addition to that praise that will refresh and encourage the artist the next morning when he or she gets up to start on the next piece?

For the creative person, there is a definite "rush" - almost a high - in completing a piece of work, one you absolutely know is good. There is a joy in being finally able to look at this created thing that is now finally outside yourself, something that others can look at or read or listen to, something that is not just bio-electric activity inside the bone-box of your skull.

But once it is done, after the rush has run out, you sit there with another blank space in front of you. And you wonder, "Can I do it again? Do I even know how I did it that other time? Do I really have the skill to pull it off?" Or, most frightening, "Was that great piece just a fluke?"

This is where the Fine Art of Encouragement comes into play. When we praise someone, when we really want to encourage them, we need to take a step beyond praising just this work. We need to speak to those qualities that are particularly strong in that artist's work, the qualities that consistently reach out and touch us. For the more we nourish those aspects in our friend the artist, the surer the artist becomes about his or her ability to "do it again." And when an artist feels even the least bit confident of coming near their internal mark of excellence, the more they want to try for it.

I have many creative friends. One writer friend is one of the most compact writers I have ever read: he can convey a full characterization in a pungent short description and one or two lines of dialogue. Another writer has an impressive knack for writing truly scary stories without inflicting vomit-inducing gore on you, and when he does get gorey, ti is always serving the story and not the momentary effect. One artist friend has a brilliant sense of composition, and a wonderfully graceful flow in the work. Another artist has an intense love of texture and character and atmosphere that comes alive in even the simplest pieces. One young friend has an amazing singing voice that rises from her very soul and not just the "latest sound" she heard.

Any creative person goes through bouts of self-doubt. I certainly have done so. And sometimes they come when I'm doing particularly good work. The words that really help me through those moments are the ones that come from that second mode of encouragement: praise for clarity in writing, for the qualities that touched the other person. Oh, I still love the immediate ones like "I love that picture!" But what will nourish me even more are the words that feed the skills that made the picture possible.

It's an interactive process, you see. It's not just "This is beautiful," but "It touched me thusly."

Reading Terms of Service

So, this morning I was preparing to upload some photographs to Photobucket for sharing on a couple of websites, and a pop up from the site informed me that they were tweaking their terms of service, and I needed to read them and re-accept them.

"No big deal," I thought, since I had a general idea of what all was covered anyway. But, since my habit is to actually skim through all terms of service anyway, even though it's boring to do it, and most all are pretty consistent, I started reading through.

I'm glad I did. Because although Photobucket does declare that you remain the owner of your pictures (assuming that you are indeed the owner of the things posted there), by posting a picture publicly (which includes uploading and then linking to the picture) you are giving Photobucket the non-exclusive right to also repost that image, even sell it, without paying you royalties for any such use they might make of it.

Huh? I sat up. Ooops.

Mostly, I don't care about that -- I mean many of the images I post are general "public" images of my activities or travels, or (yes, copied) reference photos for blog articles. But I have in the past posted some original artwork, things I actually intend to reproduce commercially myself (like on Zazzle, for instance). I'm not keen on having a competing vendor having possible "rights" to be selling my work without paying me a license or royalty. So, I'll be taking some of the images off Photobucket, which means that some links to old LiveJournal posts will be broken. And it will change how I choose to upload images in the future.

What I'm likely to do is host artwork images on my own website server. That way, I'm not inadvertently giving reproduction rights to other possible vendors. And I'll probably start putting watermarks into original material I upload, so that my copyright shows in any copying. I have to study up on that process however.

Ah! One does have to pay attention to the details, these days. Especially if you want to keep control of your Intellectual Property rights. The trade offs of "I'll give you internet hosting space 'for free', but you'll give me the right to copy your images for merchandise if you make it public." For many people, I realize that quid pro quo is okay, because they aren't really concerned about making money off their own images. But then for those of us who are thinking that way, it makes a difference.

It's all about staying on your toes.

I thought I would update the curious about the process of learning to work with a 3D landscape rendering program. Because, I finally have results that can be looked at. I'm not saying they are great results, but they will give you an idea of the possibilities.

First off... for the program to build the wireframe that the visual rendering gets attached to, you need to do a grayscale of the topography. The thing is, Bryce seems to be designed by those who enter the program intending to build a completely imaginary landscape that doesn't have external references. As in, they weren't thinking someone would already have a map. So I have to make the topographical map in Photoshop, grading upwards from black (ground/sea level) to white for the highest elevations.

My first attempt at this I used grays that were too bright, so the wireframe shot up like a bunch of ragged prongs. Plus, it didn't like the wide panel I imported and so it squished the width to what it considered proper (thus distorting the landscape that I wanted). So, back I went to Photoshop.

I copied out a smaller portion of my whole landscape, and redid the grayscale. With the following result.

Donamar topo map

The gray blocks in the upper left corner are the samples for the old gray scaling I used, and then the new one. It was for my own reference, but they got left in the panel when I imported it to Bryce.

Now, this is a territory my imagination has lived in for a long long time. You're not seeing the water courses here, although there are some rivers and a couple of lakes in this region. I was rather proud of this work -- although I left the high elevations way too light.

So, I wasn't entirely happy with what the wireframe showed me, but since I'm still learning to work in the program, I thought, what the heck, let's see what a basic rendering will look like.


First rendering

All of a sudden, all the things I still need to learn about working in Bryce showed up. First off... I really don't know for sure why the grayscale map is tiled below the rendering. I think it has to do with the ground settings, and I wasn't paying attention to the grid. The same goes for the infinte sea-grid beyond the edge of the map. Another Ooopsy on my part for not specifying the far horizon.

And there are other things that are all sorts of wrong with this image.

The basic landscape is still way too elevated. That coastal region ought to be nearly sea level. And these hills in the foreground are waaaay too high, with not enough gradation up to them. And then the landforms in the background ought to be... well, a major mountain range.

The program does have tools to create the natural gradations between elevations, that even mimic natural erosion. I didn't apply them to this experiment, hence the terraced look of the land here.

But even though almost everything is "wrong" about this rendering ... it is also exciting, because, well, it's sort of recognizable to me. Like a cartoon version of something: you recognize the correct general outline of the thing, and you absolutely know where it is off base. And yet... you end up going, "Yeah, I can see it."

Like I said, there is so much wrong with this, I almost thought of keeping it "hidden" and only springing out things that were "right." But on second thought, it occured to me that there might be those who are interested in the process. And what better way to give them an idea of the problems that have to be over come, than by showing the "unsatisfactory results."

Like I said, it's wrong.... but I know this place, even looking like this.

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